Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, the progressive challenger to U.S. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), has rebutted accusations that he engaged in improper conduct by pursuing sexual relationships with college students, calling some of the allegations lodged against him “completely untrue.”
Speaking on Tuesday with Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, hosts of The Hill‘s online web series Rising, Morse denied any wrongdoing and challenged the factual basis of some of the allegations that had been made in a letter from the College Democrats of Massachusetts disinviting him from future events.
In that letter, the College Democrats claimed that Morse, a political science adjunct professor and lecturer at UMass Amherst, matched with Democratic and progressive students on dating apps, added them as “friends” on social media and sent them direct messages, and engaged in sexual relationships with students.
Though none of the students were in Morse’s classes or in a subordinate position to Morse, the letter argued that, while consensual, Morse had created a “lopsided power dynamic” by taking advantage of his position as both an elected official and as a professor.
To begin with, Morse called the timing of the accusations — dropped less than three weeks before what many expected to be a fiercely contested Democratic primary on Sept. 1 — “incredibly suspicious,” given that he’s been running for mayor for more than a year but the accusations are only coming forward now.
Throughout his campaign, Morse has touted his progressive bona fides, running on a platform that includes support for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and other liberal initiatives, while also blasting Neal — whom The American Prospect reported in February was the member of Congress who had received the most campaign money from pro-business political action committees — for being beholden to corporate interests and using his chairmanship to defeat amendments or bills that would help working people, including one that would have ended surprise medical billing.
Morse later told public radio station WAMC he believes the Neal campaign was involved in the publication of the allegations against him, saying he would “not be surprised” if more information comes to light regarding the basis for the accusations that reveals them to be part of a political smear.
“I think this is what happens when you go against power,” he said. “This would not be happening if I wasn’t a candidate for Congress, this would not be happening if I wasn’t on the verge of defeating one of the most powerful Democrats in this country.’
A spokeswoman for the Neal campaign told the Springfield-based newspaper The Republican that the campaign played no role in the publication of the allegations, praising the “courageous” students who lodged accusations against Morse while also noting that the College Democrats came forward of their own accord.
Morse told the Rising co-hosts that the story was “shopped around” to outlets like Politico and The Washington Post in the preceding weeks, who passed on it because they were never able to obtain on-record confirmation from any students who, as the letter claimed, felt “uncomfortable” after learning of his positions.
“Basically the UMass Daily Collegian” — which first reported the accusations — “just printed word-for-word an email from the College Democrats,” Morse said. “And the mainstream media, I think, have done an incredible disservice by amplifying this, and publications from the Boston Globe to other outlets have given more scrutiny to my personal sex life, and personal life, than they’ve ever given scrutiny to Congressman Neals’ corruption and the way in which he’s used his power over a 30-year period.”
Morse also takes issue with the claims made in the College Democrats’ letter, saying that the allegations are vague, although he insists that the messages he sent to people were neither sexual nor salacious.
“If you look at the letter from the College Democrats, there is very little specificity. There are no names. Even their follow-up statement talks about Instagram messages, but doesn’t go as far as to say the messages were inappropriate,” he said.
“Anyone on my ‘Close Friends’ on Instagram knows I take pictures of sunsets and chocolate-chip cookies and blueberry muffins that I cook…and so, I just think it’s interesting that three weeks out, we’re talking about my personal sex life,” Morse continued.
Morse flatly rejected the notion that he had behaved in a lecherous manner with members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts.
“[T]his suggestion that I would seek out college students at College Democrats events is completely untrue. I’ve never hooked up with a college student that I’ve met at a College Democrats event. I’ve been to one College Democrats event since I announced this campaign over a year ago,” he said.
Morse did acknowledge that he should have been more cognizant of his positions of power and the way that might influence people’s reactions towards him, and apologized if any students felt “uncomfortable” after he sent them “friendly Instagram messages, thanking them for the panel, or for the event.”
“It was never my intention to abuse power whatsoever. And I don’t think I ever have. I’ve never used my status as mayor or as a guest lecturer at UMass Amherst to coerce or take advantage of any students,” he said. “I am completely confident that I have not violated any policies of the University of Massachusetts, and I believe I have every right to have consensual relationships with other men.”
Morse worries that the controversy will overshadow the substantive issues that have allowed his campaign to gain traction, but also notes that he has received an “outpouring of support” from people in the district — as well as progressives across the country who believe he’s being unfairly smeared — with his campaign enjoying one of its best fundraising weeks since its launch last year.
The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which endorsed Morse’s bid for office, also expressed skepticism around the timing of the allegations, calling it a “disservice to voters who want a progressive member of Congress but now only have time to make a decision based on vague and anonymous accusations.”
“Alex is taking responsibility for actions that made students uncomfortable and we support the independent investigation by UMass, despite no complaints having ever been made to the university,” Victory said in a statement, “But it is critical the media and others avoid reinforcing tired homophobic tropes or sensationalizing this story because of Alex’s sexual orientation.
“Alex has been open about the fact that he has had consensual relationships with other men, including students enrolled at local universities that he has met using dating apps, and there are no allegations of non-consent or of anyone underage. The media and voters should review the allegations and determine whether a straight candidate would be held to the same scrutiny and standards.”
Morse echoed those concerns about whether fears of similar treatment will intimidate other LGBTQ people from becoming politically engaged due to fears that their personal lives become fodder for political operatives dealing in bad faith.
“What’s most problematic is this age-old response to these allegations, the language being used to describe these allegations, and people like me, who have had to ensure an over-policing of our sex lives, as a member of the queer community,” Morse said.
“This framing of gay men as predators is incredibly problematic, and something we’ve been going against for generations…. [Y]oung people and queer people need freedom, too. We deserve to run for office. Will young people, gay people ever run for office, if this is how powerful people are going to treat us when we want to make a difference in this country?”
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